After many months of indecision, on 23 May 1964 the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) finally authorized the Navy to conduct low-altitude photographic reconnaissance flights over the Plaine des Jarres.
Within days, Photographic Squadron (VFP)-63 pilots began flying missions from the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63), which was operating from Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. Along with the authorization came orders that the RF-8 Crusader photo planes were to operate without armed escorts—even though the practice had been standard operating procedure since World War II. The normal escort in this case would have been an F-8 fighter armed with 20-mm. cannon and 5-inch Zuni rockets.
The major potential problems with the flights were their frequency and times-over-target (TOTs), which were specified by the Secretary of Defense. For these missions, the TOTs were specified as every other day at 1:00 P.M. (Laotian time). Anyone could see that such a pattern created a built-in opportunity for the Pathet Lao to spring an ambush. The proclivity of Secretary McNamara and his staff to designate TOTs plagued our armed forces for years.
The telephone in my quarters rang late on that Sunday afternoon: "You asked me to call you whenever we had a problem with one of your projects [meaning overt and covert aerial reconnaissance]. We have a bad one," said Army Master Sergeant Duncan, in charge of communications in the CinCPac Command Center.
During the several minutes fast drive up the hill to headquarters in Aiea, I automatically assumed that we had lost a Navy photo plane and pilot in the Plaine des Jarres; that day's TOT had been about an hour earlier. Duncan confirmed my fears: the pilot had been shot down and the escort pilot had seen him moving about. The rescue combat air patrol (ResCAP) from the ship had launched, he added quickly, but had been recalled because the "word" had come down that there was to be "no round-eye" [American] effort to rescue the pilot.
I could not believe it. We had two Air America helicopters stationed on a hill about 20 miles away, on alert for just this purpose. In fact, as we later learned, the crews had heard the pilot's "MAYDAY" call as he ejected. Duncan was on top of things. He already had called the JCS and talked to the duty flag officer, who confirmed the "no round-eye rescue" order, which obviously was meant to include not only Navy aircraft but also the Air America helicopters.
The ridiculous aspect of the order was that there were no other forces available. The only "non-round-eye" friendly force in the area was the Royal Laotian Air Force, flying some of our old T-28 trainers—small propeller-driven airplanes modified to carry machine guns and two small bombs—and they were many miles distant to the south; they had no helicopters. For all practical purposes, at this point the photo pilot had been abandoned by the government that had sent him in harm's way.
I called the JCS on the secure telephone and spoke with the Army brigadier general who was the duty flag officer. He confirmed the order. When I literally demanded to know who had issued such an order, he said he was not sure. I respectfully suggested that he find out as soon as possible and we would be calling him back, also ASAP. As I dropped the secure phone, I called my immediate boss, Marine Brigadier General George Bowman, our J-3/operations officer, but he was not at home.
To hell with this, I said to myself, and I called Admiral Felt on his private line at his quarters in Makalapa, just down the hill; I was bypassing at least three other senior flag officers. The line was not secure, so I told him briefly that we had a serious problem in the PDJ. He knew what that meant: "Do you want me to come up?" I said, "Yes sir, it is critical." "I'm on the way," he replied.
Less than ten minutes later, the JCS brigadier general was telling the admiral that the order had come from the Secretary of Defense himself. (Before he called the JCS, Admiral Felt had instructed me to pick up a second secure phone and admonished me: "You listen; you do not speak." "Aye aye, sir," I answered. I had not used that term in many years, but it seemed appropriate under the circumstances.)
Admiral Felt spoke quietly: "General, get me the Secretary of Defense on this line immediately." The general made the mistake of hemming and hawing and even mentioned the lateness of the hour (around 1:00 A.M. in Washington, D.C.). Admiral Felt quietly repeated his order—word for word. This time he got the message.
Several minutes later, sounding very wide awake, and almost jovial, Robert McNamara came on the line and asked Admiral Felt the reason for the call. Admiral Felt was never one to mince words. "Mr. Secretary, I have been told that you are aware that we just had a Navy photo pilot shot down in the Plaine des Jarres and that an order had been issued by your office that there was to be no `round-eye' effort to rescue the pilot, is that correct?"
"That is correct, Admiral," McNamara answered. At this point Admiral Felt interrupted him: "May I ask by whose authority this order was issued?"
"The recommendation came from State," McNamara replied, "and the Secretary of State and I discussed it and agreed that this is the best course of action."
Typical McNamara answer, I thought. At this point, in addition to being mad, my mind was assembling all the reasons why the decision was wrong. Admiral Felt turned slightly to look at me. I'm sure he could read my mind. I thought I could read his, but I was wrong. He was way ahead of both of us, as usual. He spoke again, very quietly but in a short clipped tone that I had never heard him use before.
"Mister Secretary, that is not a decision that can be made by the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense. The decision to rescue this pilot or not to rescue him can be made only by the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, and I am asking you to put me through to the Commander-in-Chief—now, Sir."
I almost dropped the telephone. After a few seconds, McNamara started almost mumbling; he didn't argue the point, or refuse the request, but he made a big point that it was very late and that the President had just retired after a long evening. Again I am thinking "You idiot, should we let the pilot be captured and/or killed so that the President can sleep?"
Again, Admiral Felt quietly repeated his previous statement word for word, just as he had done with the general. Again, it worked. McNamara, without another word on the subject, said, "All right, I will ring the President." Within 30 seconds President Johnson came on the line. The time lapse was important to me and I'm sure to Admiral Felt, because it meant that McNamara did not take the time to discuss it with the President or shortstop the action. President Johnson also seemed rather wide awake and almost jovial:
"Good morning, Admiral Felt, what can I do for you?"
"Mr. President, we just had a Navy photo pilot shot down over the Plain des Jarres in northern Laos, but the Navy and Air America rescue effort has been called off by the Secretary of Defense as recommended by the Secretary of State. I just spoke to the Secretary of Defense and told him that this is a critical military decision that cannot be made by the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of State, but one that can be made only by the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, and I am asking your permission to go in and rescue this pilot."
Without hesitation, President Johnson came back,
"Well, I'll be damned. Of course, go in and get him—and let me know how it comes out."
"I thank you, Mr. President, and I will do that." That ended the momentous conversation.
It was beyond my comprehension that a single individual—Robert McNamara—should so callously attempt to overturn a centuries-old tradition: that we do not abandon our comrades. It took a naval officer with the moral courage of Harry Felt to straighten things out.
The unfortunate Navy photo pilot was Lieutenant Charles Klusmann, now a retired captain living in Pensacola, Florida. It still is unclear whether the Air America pilots did not receive the "no round-eye rescue" order when it was issued, or chose to ignore it, or sent in helos after learning of the order's recision. The latter seems more likely, and would account for the delay of several hours before they arrived on scene. It is a moot point now, but it certainly was not then.
One very interesting aspect of Klusmann's near rescue by Air America helos is his statement that three Air America "aircraft remained overhead for a couple of hours, but still no sign of ground troops"—after which two Air America helos arrived for his pickup. Unfortunately, heavy ground fire drove off the lead aircraft; the copilot was wounded and the helicopter took 80 hits. Klusmann waved off the second helo because it, too, was flying into an ambush. And so he was captured.
The important aspect of the rescue is that the Kitty Hawk's ResCAP never did show up; they had been recalled. In all probability, they would have neutralized the area by the time the helos arrived and the Air America crews would have been able to make the pickup, which we had done many times in Korea, and were to do many times later in Vietnam. Instead, Lieutenant Klusmann had the distinction of being the very first casualty of the air war in Southeast Asia.
Epilogue: After his near rescue, Captain Klusmann endured three months of starvation and disease before making his final escape—a remarkable saga in itself. At the time of the rescue of Captain Scott O'Grady, U.S. Air Force, in Bosnia not long ago, and again during the recent rescue of the F-117 pilot downed over Yugoslavia, I could not help but wonder what would have been their reaction, or that of the American public, had the present Secretary of Defense or anyone else tried to block their rescues.
Editor’s Note: The quotes represent the author’s recollection of what was said.
Commander Tierney served in numerous fighter and test squadrons, carriers, and staffs. He was the chief test pilot on the Sidewinder guided missile at China Lake.